Arts & Events

New: Island City Opera Presents Mark Adamo’s LITTLE WOMEN

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday January 22, 2019 - 11:03:00 AM

In 1998, Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women premiered at Houston Grand Opera, where it was commissioned by Houston’s then artistic director David Gockley. Based on American writer Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Adamo’s Little Women is currently being presented in Alameda by Island City Opera. I attended on Sunday, January 20 the second of four performances at Alameda’s Elks Lodge. The remaining performances take place at the same venue on January 25 at 7:30 pm and January 27 at 2:00 pm.  

Alcott’s novel, largely autobiographical, depicts the youthful lives of four sisters growing up in an impoverished family in Concord, Massachusetts. Though not well off financially, the March family is quite artistic; and each of the four sisters dabbles in the arts. Jo, the central figure and a surrogate for Alcott herself, aspires to be a writer. Beth has a gift for music and is working on a composition of her own. Amy is a talented draftsman, and Meg, well, she is the eldest of the sisters and seems to embody common sense and yet a belief in marriage for love and not as a vehicle for financial and social advancement. In Adamo’s opera, as in Alcott’s novel, there are many shifting timeframes as the sisters grow older yet look back now and again at the way they were at the beginning of the story. Some of these shifts in time are difficult to follow, with the result that we are never really sure how old the sisters are in any particular scene.  

Musically, Mark Adamo has crafted an opera that contains elements of modernist dissonance as well as elements of classical harmony and old-fashioned, sentimental melody. This combination seems appropriate for a story that is highly sentimental and moralizing yet also full of familial discord. However, just as the shifting timeframes are hard to follow, the sudden shifts musically can be a bit jarring. Moreover, in a family drama already containing four sisters, a mother and father, an aunt, a boy next-door, a suitor for Meg, and a German professor, composer Mark Adamo has further complicated matters by including a vocal quartet of four female singers. Who they are and what they represent is anyone’s guess. Their presence seems a totally random intrusion on the opera’s storyline. 

In the lead role of Jo, mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus was superb. Vocally and dramatically, Rosengaus seemed to embody the character of Jo, a strong-willed, bullying young woman who rejects marriage and wants her family life to remain as it was when the sisters meant everything to one another. Possessed of a voice with great range, Rosengaus employed her vocal talents with superb expressivity as she depicted the various contradictory elements in Jo’s character. As the elder sister, Meg, mezzo-soprano Katja Heuzeroth was also superb. Meg is in many ways the anchor of the family, and Katja Heuzeroth’s performance emphasized the stability of Meg’s character. Of the four sisters, Meg is the first to marry, and thus the first to endure the wrath and scorn of the strong-willed and narrow-minded Jo. Vocally and dramatically, Meg is not nearly as flighty as is Jo; but within a narrower range of emotions Katja Heuzeroth’s Meg effectively portrayed the gradual independence Meg achieves from her overbearing sister Jo. In the role of Amy, soprano Angela Jarosz had a lot of old-fashioned coloratura to sing, and for the most part she handled these passages well. However, there were moments of shrillness in some of her high notes. As Beth, soprano Aimée Puentes was in fine voice; and in her death scene she handled with aplomb the pathos in Adamo’s score. 

Among the male characters in Adamo’s Little Women, tenor Sergio González ably portrayed Laurie, the boy next-door. As youngsters, Laurie and Jo have a lively, playful friendship. Later, Laurie declares his love for Jo and asks her to marry him. Jo scornfully rejects him. Later, Laurie marries Amy. Throughout these changes, Sergio González’s Laurie gave an impassioned performance. Baritone Bradley Kynard sang the role of John Brooke, Meg’s suitor and eventual husband. Vocally, Kynard is a high baritone; yet he has considerable power in his low register. In the role of Friedrich Bhaer, the German professor who courts a now older and wiser Jo near the end of the opera, baritone Don Hoffman was excellent. His lyrical performance in German of a passage from Goethe was particularly effective.  

As Gideon March, the father of the four sisters, Wayne Wong was in good voice. He was joined by mezzo-soprano Jacque Wilson as Alma March, the girls’ mother. Particularly effective was the parents recalling their own wedding vows. Soprano Ellen St. Thomas was outstanding as the crusty and temperamental Aunt Cecilia. The vocal quartet, randomly mysterious though its function may be, was ably comprised of mezzo-soprano Leandra Ramm, soprano Chelsea Hollow, soprano Maria Caycedo, and soprano Debra Niles.  

Conductor Dana Sadava made an auspicious debut here as she led a 19-piece orchestra in a well-paced interpretation of Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Igor Viera’s staging of the opera was full of details that effectively underlined the shifting aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s storyline.